John Galt: Lover of Standards

Subject: John Galt: Lover of Standards
From: Andrew Plato <intrepid_es -at- yahoo -dot- com>
To: techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com
Date: Mon, 25 Oct 1999 01:22:47 -0700 (PDT)

George F. Hayhoe said:

> (Scientists) Their world is founded upon methodology and
> principles that ensure the predictability of results. When
> the expected results don't occur, the scientist or engineer
> analyzes what happened and discovers either that the
> methodology and principles weren't correctly applied, or
> that they were flawed in some way. The result is a better
> understanding of the methodology and principles, or an
> improvement upon them. In other words, the scientist or
> engineer is able to explain rationally why the U.S. Space
> Shuttle works reliably virtually all of the time, as well as
> why the _Challenger_ exploded.

Okay, so why didn't they know that Challenger would explode before it exploded?
Hindsight is always 20/20.

I won't get into a Myth of Rationality debate other than to say this: There is
no such thing as rationality. It is a creation of our minds based on what we
believe to be true and correct. In reality, chaos is at the heart of all things
and rationality is merely a "path" through the chaotic thicket that a profound
majority accept as truth. We accept that periods are good at the end of
sentences because we have been trained from early childhood that this it truth.
A profound majority of us accept this standard and therefore, we can appreciate
it's value. There is value in the standard because a profound majority accept
it as truth - not because it is objectively good. Objective good would require
a realm of reality that was perfect where all things are judged and developed
impervious to all forms of human failings.

Last I checked the Yellow Pages there was no telephone number for "Objective
Reality." So I have to assume it does not exist.

But that is another pretentious debate for some scruffy coffeehouse patrons.

I am going to talk about standards - again. (Stick that in your Fountainhead
and smoke it!)

Standards are valuable. Despite my railing against them left and right,
standards are ultimately what brought about the Internet revolution. Without
standards there would be no web sites, operating systems, or space shuttles. I
admit, I would be a 500 pound, crack addict who watches Barney Miller all day
if it were not for documentation standards.

However, there is a wide gulf between a tangible, operative device such as
software or space ships and a written document.

How do you determine if a space ship is good? Test it, launch it into space,
etc. When it blows up - figure out what went wrong and THEN, after the fact,
design a standard to stop the thing from blowing up.

I think one of the largest problems with standards in many organizations is
that people try to create a standard before they have any product.

When a scientist engages in a new project, he/she does not sit down and graph
out all the "rules." The first thing he/she does is develop a hypothesis - the
academic version of the mission statement. Then as the project progresses, the
scientists leverages his work off similar work, learning, adapting, and
evolving until a solution is found. Often, the solution found is not what was
expected - this leads to more research and the cycle starts again. 99999999
times out of 1000000000, there are no methodologies. These are built slowly
over the course of the project.

Where I think many writers go astray on the whole standards issue is that they
try to define the rules before they ever play the game. They try to set up
perfect little universes where they can work in peace and quiet, rather than
fight informational chaos. They place their faith in structure before knowing
what it is that structure is defining. Since this structure was documented in
some book, and it worked somewhere else - it goes to follow that it will work
for you, right? Wrong.

The technological standards for HTML, OOP, SQL, etc. did not arise one day out
of a learned person's mind. They were habits that melted together until
someone wrote them down. In other words - HTML existed and worked long before
the standard was developed. HTML is actually an outgrowth of research projects
and nerdy tinkering. The standard was not established until years after it was
invented and already in use.

As any good scientist and engineer will tell you, the only way you can truly
tell if something works is to take it out and fly it (drive it, execute it, put
it on a web server etc.) I think the same rule applies to documentation. The
only way to tell if documentation works is to sit your ass down and write it
and then let people read it. Nobody in the universe (besides another tech
writer) cares one tiny bit if a document was written using a good standard if
the document (help file, CBT, whatever) contains useless information. And just
because you follow a well thought out process does not mean you will, always
and reliably produce good documentation.

Therefore, while I may seem like I am advocating chaos and anarchy all the
time, in reality I merely advocating some common sense when it comes to
standards. Use them wisely and treat them as friends not mandates from the
Gods. Good standards will last, bad ones should evolve. But having a standard
just because you should is nonsense.

Good writers figure out what it is they are writing about FIRST. SECOND they
write the document. Then THIRD they make sure it conforms to appropriate
standards or bend the existing ones to fit the current situation. Applying a
standard to a document about a product (science, concept, idea, design, etc.)
you do not understand is like putting a bow on Pandora's Box. Sure it looks
pretty, but you still have no idea what's inside the box.

Andrew Plato


John Galt is ... oh it is a long story. Just read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.
It is a horrible book, but required reading if you want to be a selfish
egomaniac (like me).


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